Sunday, September 05, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 13 (Pentecost 14)

5 September 2004 at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Metairie, LA (?)

Text: Luke 13:22-30 (Heb 12:18-24, Is 66:18-23) (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is scary. Jesus tells us the gateway to heaven is narrow, that many will not find that door. And the fate that awaits them is not pleasant. They will stand outside desperately pounding at the door while Jesus says: “I don’t know you.” He will also say “Go away, you evildoers, to a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus is answering the question as to how many will be saved. At first glance, his answer is not encouraging.

But what does this mean that the door is narrow? Does it mean the chances of us finding it will be small? Does it mean that it won’t accommodate the number of people striving to get through the door? Will there be people in hell who genuinely tried to get through the door, but were forced out? Is this what Jesus means?

To be sure, Jesus’s warning about hell is very true, it is sobering, it causes us to think seriously about sin and about our friends and relatives who are alienated from the Lord, who reject the Gospel. But the narrowness of the door is really of comfort to us Christians. For we know that Jesus is the door. He is our gateway to eternal life. He is our assurance of heaven. The narrowness of that door assures that we are indeed on the right path.

The world is offended at Jesus’s assertion that the door is narrow. The world says there are many paths to God, many doors to heaven, many ways to bridge the gap that separates sinful man from the perfect God. In fact, the world says there are many gods – and your god is right for you, my god is right for me, and no god is better than any other. The world believes the gateway to heaven is wide – big enough to fit all people, regardless of what they believe. The world does not believe there is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth – except for maybe a dozen dictators and mass murderers. The world believes that mankind is basically good, and that we will all enjoy the afterlife – Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Sikh, Wiccan, and Atheist. For the world rejects our Lord Jesus Christ’s description of a narrow door – a door that is Jesus himself. A door that opens in front of the cross, a door that leads to the empty tomb. A door that welcomes guests into an eternal, heavenly banquet. For this door is exclusive, it opens only one way, and it does not open for anyone except those who confess Jesus.

This is the narrowness that our Lord speaks of. The door is narrow because it is Jesus only. And those who grab the doorknobs of other doors find the way locked. They can twist and turn with all their might, but they will never prove strong enough to break the lock. But the door of Christ opens without effort. It is easily opened by a tiny infant at the font. It is opened without exertion by a person on his deathbed, unable to even breathe without help. It is effortlessly opened by the weak and despised of the world who have been forgotten by the strong and powerful. “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” In fact, if you try to open the Christ door using your own strength, the door will lock. The harder you try, the more worthless your effort becomes. Only when we depend on the strength which is not our own does the bolt fly open, and the door fling wide, inviting us into paradise.

And the way this door works is also hated by the world. According to them, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t follow the world’s ways. The world says: “survival of the fittest,” “to the victor goes the spoils,” “he who dies with the most toys wins.” The world admires strength, wealth, being on top. The world despises a door that opens to the newborn, the elderly, the cancer patient, the one who struggles with sin, the average Joe, and even the mass murderer – and yet slams shut in the face of mighty emperors, pampered celebrities, barons of industry, and even the super-religious who rely on their own strength, their own clout, their own connections, their own ability to intimidate. For intimidation has the opposite effect on this door. Because the Door himself says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” and “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Another peculiar thing about this Door is that it comes knocking to us. While most doors remain passive, waiting for us to open them in our own sweet time, this Door speaks, calls, beckons, and even pleads for us to “strive to enter through the narrow door.” He doesn’t tell us to grope around in the dark looking for the doorknob. Rather, the Door comes right to us, no matter where we are – even if we are where we shouldn’t be.

Christ is the strangest Door in the universe. He is a Door that crosses space and time, allowing a baptismal font to stand in the shadow of the cross. He is the Door that leads from death to life. He is the Door that bypasses sin and leads directly to the throne-room of God. He is the Doorway that opens into the Great Banquet Hall where the eternal feast rages, with unlimited joy.

And for all of the wonders of this Door, whose miracles are offered freely to all, most people don’t care to use it. They seek a window, a fence to climb over, a different door, or they don’t mind staying right where they are. Some people don’t see the need for a door, because a door leads away from where they are. Others maybe see the Door as “too good to be true.” Regardless, they are content to stay in the courtyard of sin and miss out on the celebration of life. Even though remaining outside the banquet hall means exposure to the elements and starvation. Pride prevents many people from entering – although the invitation has been extended and the place at table has been reserved.

But invitations don’t last forever, doors eventually close, and those who reject the host must deal with the results of the prideful refusal of the greatest gift of all. There is no greater insult to a person than to reject an invitation. And those who refuse this invitation spurn God’s only Son, his beloved Son whom the Father sacrificed for the sins of the world. And in refusing this invitation, by their own choosing, they “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” where “their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched.” A prominent Lutheran theologian observed that God doesn’t send anyone to hell for sins. The sins are all paid for. People send themselves to hell by spurning the invitation to heaven. And pride certainly goeth before the fall.

But what is the Church to make of this Gospel text? Should it frighten us? Should it fill us with doubt about our salvation? Is our Lord scaring us to spur us on to good works, to church attendance, to stewardship, to “getting right with God”? Certainly not! For we have been invited by name to pass through the Door – no matter how narrow, no matter how many others refuse. We have been sealed with the waters of baptism, one little splash of which is powerful enough to quench the fires of hell. We have nothing to fear. Now, our Lord’s sobering words may well encourage us to pray for those who are lost, to bring them to church so that they might hear the Word of God. We should continue to pray to our merciful Lord for the world that rejects the invitation, that seeks wider doors, that wants a door that opens based on the world’s standards. For the days of grace will not extend forever. Once we are safely inside the Banquet Hall, and the eternal meal has begun, those who have chosen to reject the Door will remain outside forever. God doesn’t force his grace on anyone.

So, dear Christian friends, don’t despair! For our Lord is merciful, and he continues to hold the Door to eternal life wide open for those whose invitation has been signed by the cross, sealed by water, and delivered with bread, wine, and his Holy Word. Like the door of Noah’s ark, this Door also protects the Church inside from the destruction that will take place outside. For we will “come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” for all eternity – just as we do today. Remember our Lord’s promise that he did not come to the world to condemn the world, but rather to save! The narrowness of that Door should assure us that we are in the right place. There is one way to the banquet, and our weak, feeble hands are holding the doorknob – or more accurately, the doorknob holds us by the hand, refuses to let us go, and pulls us into eternal life. Thanks be to God! Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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